restricted access Breaking the Signifying Chain: A New Blueprint for African-American Literary Studies
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 145-163

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Breaking the Signifying Chain: A New Blueprint for African-American Literary Studies

Bill V. Mullen

I have found in the Negro worker the real symbol of the working class in America.

--Richard Wright, New York Amsterdam News 1

The structures through which black labor is reproduced [. . .] are not simply 'colored' by race: they work through race [. . .]. Race is thus [. . .] the modality in which class is 'lived,' the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and 'fought through.'

--Stuart Hall, "Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance"

In 1929 the American Marxist critic V. F. Calverton published his Anthology of American Negro Literature, organized by and committed to the principle that "Negro art and literature in America have had an economic origin." "All that is original in Negro folk-lore, or singular in [End Page 145] Negro spirituals and Blues," he wrote in his introduction, "can be traced to the economic institution of slavery and its influence upon the Negro soul" (5). In 1938, Richard Wright affirmed Calverton's essential interpretation as evidenced in both his New York Amsterdam News observation cited above and his seminal essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing." Still considered a moment of origin for black protest literature, Wright's meditation--which touched on race, nationalism, black social class formation, Marxism, internationalism, and black cultural production--remains a signal articulation of an African-American literary aesthetic, foregrounding black proletarian experience, on one hand, and a literary aesthetic of class-based analysis on the other. Stuart Hall's more recent recasting of these ideas--taking into fuller consideration definitional contingencies of both race and class--might also serve as a clarion call for contemporary critics of African-American literature to its role in the development of something we might here try to define as "working-class literature."

I want to begin such a consideration by asking why the argument that was so clear and so clearly important to Calverton and Wright sixty years ago--namely, that African-American experience and literature are primarily of and about the working class--is so unclear to critics of African-American literature today. To do so I want to borrow from Wright the idea of a map or blueprint that will perhaps lead us to new ways of thinking through the interconnectedness of African-American and working-class experience, particularly in light of helpful--and not so helpful--critical trends and benchmark moments in African-American literary studies. This essay will thus attempt to identify challenges and opportunities for scholars of African-American literature who seek to build an analysis of class, particularly working-class experience, in African-American literary studies. I offer them as both roadblocks to be removed and signposts to a more complete understanding of the centrality of working-class experience to African-American literature and of African-American literature to working-class literature. I also hope to delineate the way "race" and "class" can be better mutually apprehended through selective analysis of the black tradition in letters. [End Page 146]

The (Literary) Value of Black Labor

As Ira Berlin has written: "If slavery made race, its larger purpose was to make class, and the fact that the two were made simultaneously by the same process has mystified both" (5). Berlin's assessment reminds us that the literary genre unique to the African-American tradition--the slave narrative--is perhaps the single largest body on the making of social class in the United States. Indeed the slave narrative is by all rights the indigenous American proletarian literature. One can turn almost anywhere for an example: Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, to take the best known selection of the genre, yields numerous extraordinary passages both describing and analyzing not just the economic and material ground of slavery, but the structural and ideological effects of its myriad adjunct forms. Here, for example, Douglass describes his relationship under contract labor to the man for whom he...